was the principal collection of funerary literature that was used from the New Kingdom until the early Roman period. It is popularly known as the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, because its papyrus copies were often found buried with mummies. It was generally available to anyone who could copy, or afford to have copied, either the sometimes lengthy papyri documents or the briefer excerpts found on smaller sheets of papyrus or on short lengths of linen. Some of the chapters and spells from the book were also inscribed on coffins, in tombs, and even on temple walls, and individual spells known from some of those sources were associated with shawabtis (chapter 6), heart scarabs (chapter 30), and the hypocephali (which are flat circles of linen or papyrus, sometimes covered with gesso plaster, bearing chapter 162 of the Book of the Dead).

Although there are hundreds of Book of the Dead manuscripts extant, many have not yet been published, so there is still a serious lack of accurate and useful comparative editions of the texts from the different periods. One of the first publications of the Book of the Dead was in 1842, by Richard Lepsius, and this was of a manuscript in the Egyptian Museum at Turin; it was a text from Ptolemaic times that had 165 chapters, and it represented the fairly standard Late period selection and ordering of the texts.

E. A. Wallis Budge, as keeper of the Egyptian Collection in the British Museum, London, was a prolific editor of its manuscripts, and he published in 1894 and 1899 a number of that museum's finest Book of the Dead documents, which are still useful. He also produced a text-translation-and-vocabulary set in 1898, which though readily available in more recent editions is no longer of much use, since its reprints do not have the same pagination as the 1898 edition that is generally cited in our references—and his translations were already outdated when the work was published.

In 1886, Édouard Naville published what is still the standard edition of a number of comparable texts of the New Kingdom, though it was based on the order of the published Turin manuscript of much later date (Ptolemaic); it is further flawed by its numerous inconsistencies in transcription, which make it quite unreliable. There are a number of up-to-date translations of the Book of the Dead spells in the same order as those early editions, but almost all of them ignore the fact that a large number of earlier manuscripts had their own arrangements of spells; because the spells discovered later were merely added to the end of the growing corpus, the original books are still not well represented. Generally omitted as well are the introductory scenes of the deceased associating with various deities, which seem to set the tone for the selection of texts that follow. The texts generally involve two gods, Re and Osiris; still, individual manuscripts can show enough texts weighted toward one or the other deity to be considered oriented toward one deity or the other—and this orientation seems to be consistent with the introductory scene of each document.

Often, some relationship exists between an individual manuscript's orientation and its conclusion, though it is not always clear that the real end of any single book has been reached. Even for the Late period examples, which list chapters 162 to 165 as additions to the original, it is not always clear whether 165 or 162 is to be the final chapter (and of course many spells can and do occur beyond these). There are 192 spells presently associated with the work, and some of these include variants that differ so greatly that originally they should have been numbered separately.

Rubrics (entries in red ink) are found in most manuscripts; these are most frequently used for titles or for additional comments about the sources of individual spells and their effectiveness, or they give specific instructions for their use. For example a number of spells were labeled as “truly excellent, proved a million times.” Some were to be recited on certain days, making use of particular amulets, or with the requirement of ritual purity. In one oft-cited rubric, Prince Hordedef of the fourth dynasty is said to have discovered chapter 64 under the feet of the god at Hermopolis. The old and very interesting chapter 17 also used rubrics to present various interpretative glosses that had become attached to the sections of the original text; these show clearly that the ancients had some difficulty themselves in understanding the texts and were also not averse to providing their own not unbiased interpretations. For example, contradictory Osirian and Solar glosses were both attached to the text of chapter 17.

Two of the most interesting and important chapters of the Book of the Dead are 110 and 125. Chapter 110 was known already from the Coffin Texts to refer to the Elysian Fields or paradise for the ancient Egyptians; this Sekhet-ḥetepu, or Field of Offerings, is a place where an “equipped” or blessed spirit can plow, reap, eat, drink, copulate, and “do everything that is done upon earth.” Chapter 125 is a new addition to the funerary literature, which includes a “judgment scene,” where the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of truth. The deity Thoth presides and records; forty-two judges apparently represent the nomes of Egypt, though they are not consistently set forth; Ammamet is there to devour the guilty; but the vindicated always go forth to join Osiris.

What it takes to make up a complete Book of the Dead has not been defined. Many very short versions seem to have been complete in themselves, yet some may omit the “judgment scene” altogether, despite the fact that it seems central. These abbreviated manuscripts also lack particular spells, such as chapter 64 (variant), which is claimed to be complete enough to stand alone. Interestingly, a number of these short versions have only spells concerned with the voyage of the sun god Re.

Although many beautifully illustrated versions of the Book of the Dead exist on papyri, the book made for (and perhaps by) the nineteenth dynasty royal scribe Any, now in the British Museum, is certainly among the finest examples. The Greenfield Papyrus of Nesitanebetisheru, daughter of the high priest Pinedjem II of the twenty-first dynasty, at 41 meters (135 feet), is among the longest known, having almost all its chapters illustrated with large but rather basic vignettes. During that dynasty, many women had such books and some may even have been involved in their composition. If there had been great variety in earlier manuscripts, some additions and changes introduced at that time became the norm for later examples. During the Third Intermediate Period, many individuals had an abbreviated Book of That Which Is in the Underworld (Amduat) and special decrees of Amun-Re, as well, to complete their collections of guides to the beyond.


  • Allen, T. George. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in Their Own Terms. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 37. Chicago, 1974. Translation.
  • Barguet, Paul. Le Livre des Morts des anciens Égyptiens. Paris, 1967. Translation.
  • Faulkner, Raymond O. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, rev. ed. London, 1985. Translation.
  • Naville, Édouard. Das aegyptische Todtenbuch der XVIII bis XX Dynastie. 3 vols. Berlin, 1886. Transcription of a number of New Kingdom parallel versions.

Leonard H. Lesko